Time to Breathe

Photo by Artem Kovalev on Unsplash

Thanksgiving is—bar none—my favorite holiday of the year. Yes, I do celebrate Christmas. And no, Christmas isn’t actually my favorite holiday. It really is Thanksgiving.

You may be wondering, Turkey and stuffing and potatoes and beans and pies and cookies? Eating to excess for days on end? You like that more than getting presents?

No and yes. No, those aren’t the reasons I love it. And yes, I like it more than getting presents. Thanksgiving has undoubtedly evolved in our country to represent excess. Excess food—eat until you’re in pain, then eat some more. Wait a few hours and repeat. For days on end. Throw away mountains of food that no one ever ends up eating. Spend hours fighting with family. Everyone dreads Thanksgiving—as soon as Halloween is over, the Christmas decorations are out, and everywhere you look, there are houses draped in festive lights.

But what about Thanksgiving?

The origins of Thanksgiving related to giving thanks. And while that word is still in the name of the holiday, that aspect has somewhat faded from people’s minds. The focus is on food, on getting through the holiday as quickly as possible and then going shopping the day after—all the sales!

But what about giving thanks?

If you’ve read some of my other blog posts, you already know that I lived in extreme poverty when I was a young child. I know this has had an impact on my mixed feelings toward Christmas as well as my difficulty not going overboard to give things to other people (I don’t really care that much about the receiving side, but I positively love giving gifts). I don’t have any memories of celebrating Thanksgiving before I entered foster care, either.

What I do have is a very clear memory of my first Thanksgiving in foster care. My sister and I had been living with our foster mom for ten months, and we’d grown used to having a warm bed at night, clean clothes and clean bodies for school every morning, and a full belly after each meal.

Of course, we had a mountain of food. Just as we still do today every time my foster mom hosts a get together of any sort. (The intention isn’t to have enough food to feed an army, but simply enough that everyone can eat until they’re full and maybe have some leftovers so there can be a few days’ break from cooking.) The house was toasty warm with so many bodies inside and a fire in the wood stove and everyone was so… happy. Happy to be there with each other.

They weren’t fighting, they weren’t rolling their eyes, they weren’t rushing to leave. They were smiling and laughing and hugging and talking and playing games. They had debates without fighting and were genuinely enjoying each other.

And then, before we ate, every single person shared a little about what made them thankful that year, taking a moment to consider and provide a thoughtful response.

Of course, I missed my parents, and I was confused and angry over losing them. I hated a lot about myself and there was so much of my life that I didn’t understand. Even so, I had a list a mile long of things I was grateful for having over the last ten months—finding something to name wasn’t the problem, it was picking just one or two to share that was a challenge. As I looked around the table and listened, it seemed I wasn’t the only one with that struggle.

That was the day I fell in love with Thanksgiving.

As families grew over the years, it became more difficult to continue with this tradition, having sometimes thirty bodies or more—especially when some of those bodies are young and impatient children—but every year I campaigned to keep the tradition of everyone sharing their personal gratitudes. When my husband and I were lucky enough to be able to create a list of nice-to-haves when searching for our current home, the first thing I put on that list was a large dining room because I wanted to be able to host Thanksgivings. For family, for friends—everyone is welcome in our home.

As much as I love Thanksgiving, I’ve accepted that this one will be one of the smallest and quietest I’ve had in nearly thirty years because of the pandemic. And as the heyday of the holiday season approaches, I can feel the almost frenetic energy beginning to build. Not only is there Thanksgiving, but Christmas follows, and—at least for me, though I suspect for many—Christmas season is one of high pressure and high anxiety.

I’m so incredibly grateful for so many things. I’m thankful for my family’s health during a pandemic, for being on this journey to heal and all the people in my life who are supporting me, for my family and friends, for my writing friends and my editor, my therapist and my job, and I don’t think I could have made it through this year without—

And then my thoughts are interrupted by my daughter asking me if Santa gives pets for Christmas or if we can have two trees this year, or how early can we decorate—not yet!—or any other number of questions regarding the most magical holiday for a young child who knows she is provided for and safe.

In-Breaths and Out-Breaths

Just about every morning, I go for a walk around our neighborhood. We’re lucky to live in a community that has conservation land as a part of it, so there’s a path carved through the woods that comes behind my back yard. Those woods are my favorite part of the neighborhood, and I look forward to that portion of my walk—I miss it when something happens to disrupt my routine.

It’s that time of year when the air has become crisp in the early mornings, a chill that has me tossing on a sweatshirt before I head out the door. The trees still have a few leaves that are painted and the sky is a crystal-clear blue as the sun lights it up. Is there anything better than fall?

For years, my husband and I have had heated debates over the best season of the year. He has always been team spring. It’s not that he doesn’t appreciate the beauty of fall like I do, but that—like many, I suspect—he sees fall as a time of dying off. I vehemently disagree. Fall isn’t the beginning of a period of death, but a period of rest. A period of respite from the harsh demands of growing bigger and stronger with inconsistent water and nutrient supply under a blazing sun. A period of renewal before awakening in the spring as if from a long, deep sleep.

Just over a year ago, I finished reading INFJ Revolution by Lauren Sapala during a road trip. My kids were alternately napping in their seats and looking out the window, and my husband’s Clive Cussler audiobook was on in the background. As I finished and held back tears from how strong an emotional connection I’d had to Lauren’s book, the back road we were traveling on entered a heavily-forested area. We were surrounded by a glorious stage of leafy color and it was suddenly as if we were driving through a painting. I wrote the following:

“We are driving through a painting—at least that’s what it feels like. The back roads we’re cruising down are definitely in peak leaf change today and the beauty around us is breathtaking, despite the cloudy skies above and light sprinkles that are coming and going. It’s so beautiful it hurts. I mean that literally, too—my soul, my heart, my entire body aches as I look around. And from time to time we’ll pass a tree that transcends everything else around and I literally can’t even breathe for a moment. It’s always been like this for me. I don’t think it’s anything unusual for people to really enjoy fall, with its variety of colors. Some people like it for what it signifies—the coming of fall holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas. Some people are partial to pumpkin spice everything or simply just fall clothing. But it’s something way beyond that for me. I can feel the relief in the trees as they drop their leaves, the enormous sigh of relief bordering on ecstasy as they enter a season of rest and restoration prior to starting all over again in spring. I can feel the struggle and pain that went into making the leaves, holding on as their colors change, and then releasing each and every one.”

Those same sensations washed over me when I was on my recent walk. I turned from the sidewalk at my normal spot and stepped onto the walking path as it traveled steeply downhill to the edge of the woods. As I stepped under the canopy created by the trees, it hit me: a breeze that carried the sound of dried leaves rustling against one another and the aroma of leaf decay.

My feet slowed and my eyes closed of their own accord as I inhaled, my chest expanding to allow room for the slow and deep intake of the autumn breeze. I held the breath for a moment, time suspended, and then I exhaled, a collective sigh with the trees around me. The time for rest has arrived, the breeze seemed to whisper.

Brené Brown recounts a story about teaching in her book Braving the Wilderness. She has arrived after traveling and participated in the expected conference events of the day. While speaking to another teacher there, she admits to feeling pressured to attend the evening activities as well. The other teacher responds: “Tonight we will exhale and teach. Now it’s time to inhale. There is the in-breath and there is the out-breath, and it’s easy to believe that we must exhale all the time without ever inhaling. But the inhale is absolutely essential if you want to continue to exhale.”

This passage resonated with me. I have typically found the exhale to be the more restful side; all the energy to draw in the breath, the hold at the top, and then the release of the breath that will draw out all your tension, if you allow it. But I can also see the reverse, where you are working hard and exhaling with effort—the relief which comes from the inhale will allow you to continue.

However you see it, whichever side—the inhale or exhale—you find to be the restorative side of breath, we all must breathe. No one can always exhale or always inhale; you must do both, and you must find a balance. If you don’t find that balance, you’ll end up light-headed and dizzy. If you don’t change anything at that point, you’ll likely pass out from a lack of fresh oxygen or a build-up of carbon dioxide that isn’t released from your body.

The same kind of thing will happen metaphorically if you don’t remember to balance yourself; you’ll burn out, you’ll be exhausted and short-tempered. Maybe you’ll be more anxious and see a higher rate of panic attacks, or you’ll withdraw from your loved ones or resort to unhealthy coping mechanisms, like drinking or overeating or self-harm. Or maybe you’ll find your sleep in a constant state of disruption. Whatever it is, something will happen.

A friend told me she thought I would be a good voice for writing about self-care; I was flattered and honored by the suggestion. I had a quick flash of inspiration about it, but as I probed into my own thoughts, it felt disingenuous. I realized I’d be regurgitating what others have already said. Go for a walk or sit in your car for five minutes, take a bath or go for a drive. And the list goes on.

This isn’t to say I don’t find those things important. Self-care is an absolute must for mental health and balance. But I think the what of self-care is not the important part. What good is reading a suggestion to take a bath if you hate taking baths? The part that really matters is that you are doing something that YOU find restorative, something that helps you slow down and reset. If you’ve been exhaling, then something that allows you to inhale. If you’ve been inhaling, something that allows you to exhale.

One thing that helps me to do this is to think about those things I’m thankful for, examining my life with gratitude. The focus on what I have rather than what I don’t often helps me to slow everything racing around me. Of course, it doesn’t always work, and if it isn’t helping you either, here’s something you can try. This was something born in my days as a young child as a way to calm my younger sister and clear her mind when she had nightmares or when she was distressed in some other way. I now have this tattooed on my arm and I run my fingers over the words when I need some help to slow down.

Love. What does love feel like? Don’t think of a specific person, but the sensation in your body. The warmth and sense of well-being. The optimism that feeling loved brings with it. Breathe in love and breathe out love, and feel your heartbeat steady as if it has received the fuel it needs.

Peace. Imagine an absence of fighting and strife around us in the world, an absence of war and hunger and homelessness and poverty. Imagine people using words to debate one another without yelling or coming to blows, feeling safe traveling anywhere in the world. This peace is born of people having love for one another, love for humanity.

Happiness. Look around at the smiles on everyone’s faces, the joy in their eyes. There are wrinkles in the corners of their eyes and deep indentations around their lips from smiling and laughter. Even when they are sad, there is a light in their eyes, an absence of the dullness of persistent sadness.

Rainbows. Who doesn’t marvel when you see a rainbow in the sky? The right conditions must be present; just the right amount of moisture, the right amount of light. And then you get to witness a fleeting yet brilliant—almost magical—display of colors painting the sky.

Butterflies. Butterflies are amazing creatures, truly. Everyone knows how they start as these chubby little caterpillars who eat and eat and eat. And then they wrap themselves in a cocoon, and when they emerge some period of time later, they are these marvelously beautiful creatures. Insects that were once bound to the earth now take flight into the sky and see the world anew. It’s fascinating how they can metamorphosize; it seems impossible that a caterpillar becomes something so different, but that butterfly was always there inside the caterpillar all along—you just didn’t see it. We all have butterflies inside us, too.

If you feel silly focusing your thoughts in this way, that’s okay, too—you don’t need to. But close your eyes and find something that allows you to slow the cogs, to take a rest from the high-speed life surrounding you. Think of whatever makes your heart feel warm and your lips tip up in a smile, even when you’re sad.

This time of year is for giving thanks, for focusing on and expressing your gratitude. Step out of the frenzy of the holiday season and let the high-speed high-pressure atmosphere fall away, if even for a single moment.

And remember to take the time to breathe.

Katherine Turner is an award-winning author, editor, and a life-long reader and writer. She grew up in foster care from the age of eight and is passionate about improving the world through literature, empathy, and understanding. In addition to writing books, Katherine blogs about mental health, trauma, and ways we can be more compassionate as a society on her website www.kturnerwrites.com. Sign up for her newsletter to stay up to date and get a free copy of her book moments of extraordinary courage.

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